How to Write a Good Villain: A Guide for Creative Writers

how to write a good villain

Any story is only as good as its villain. From Darth Vader to Voldemort, the best stories have villains as complex and developed as their heroes!

In a great story, the villain or villains drive the plot and challenge the hero. This dynamic between the two characters is what gives a story tension and conflict, and this conflict makes your story interesting to your readers (or watchers, in the case of movie characters!).

This guide will give you the tools and techniques to create a compelling villain that your readers will love to hate. We’ll cover everything from what motivates your villain to what to avoid, so your antagonist is as well rounded as your protagonist.

Let’s get into how to write good villain, starting with their motivations in the story.

Villain Motivations

A good villain needs a believable motivation because this is what makes them more than just a one-dimensional ‘bad guy’.

When a villain’s actions are driven by a clear and relatable motive, it raises the stakes and the tension in the story. Readers are more invested they can understand why the villain is doing what they are doing!

Villains should have their own lives with unique motivations, struggles, fears, dreams, and stories that make them multi-dimensional.

villain in a graveyard

Popular Villain Motivations

Here are some of the most common villain motivations:

Revenge

A desire to get back at someone who wronged them.

  • Maleficent’s desire for revenge in Maleficent makes her curse the innocent Aurora.

  • In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Khan seeks revenge against Captain Kirk and the Federation for abandoning him and his people on a devastated planet.

Power

The pursuit of control and dominance.

  • Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones will do anything to get power and shows no mercy in doing so.

  • Sauron in The Lord of the Rings wants power to so he can impose his will on the entirety of Middle Earth.

Love

An unhealthy or misguided form of love can lead to villainous actions.

  • Mr. Freeze in the Batman series does terrible things in order to save his wife.

  • The creature in Frankenstein wants companionship and acceptance – and when he’s rejected by those around him, he turns to vengeance.

Fear

Acting out of fear of losing something valuable or facing a threat (either real or perceived).

  • Voldemort in Harry Potter is afraid of death and will do anything to achieve immortality.

  • Walter White in Breaking Bad is afraid of leaving his family with nothing when he dies of cancer, so he becomes a criminal in order to make as much money as he can as quickly as he can.

These motivations create significant obstacles for the main character of the story. The obstacles drive their growth and compel them to act against the antagonist.

Villain Motivation Tips

Here are some practical tips:

  • Make it Personal: Make the motivation personal to the villain, rooted in their backstory and experiences. This makes their actions more believable.

  • Oppose the Protagonist: Make the motivation opposite to the protagonist’s goals. For example, if the hero wants to save the world, the villain wants to destroy it.

  • Show the Stakes: Show what the villain stands to gain or lose.

  • Avoid Clichés: While power and revenge are common motives and work well, try to add a twist to avoid clichés. For example, a villain seeking power wants to protect their loved ones from a greater threat.

Pro Tip: You could try introducing less common motivations for your villain, such as ideological zealotry, existential dread, or a desire for legacy.

For example, Ozymandias from Watchmen is driven by a twisted sense of utilitarianism. He believes that sacrificing millions will save billions.

Develop Your Villain’s Backstory

A good backstory adds depth to a villain by giving context to their actions. It turns them from a simple antagonist into a fully fleshed-out character. Now, they’ve got a history that impacts their current behavior and relationships.

This depth makes the villain more understandable even when they are acting in evil or hurtful ways. The best villains have a well-thought-out or tragic backstory that makes the audience feel pity and even empathy for them. You want your audience to connect with your story’s evil character in some way!

scary villain in a story

Elements of a Compelling Backstory

Key elements of a compelling backstory include:

  • Childhood: Early experiences can significantly influence a villain’s development. For example, a neglected or abused childhood can lead to deep-seated resentment and a desire for revenge.

  • Pivotal Events: Significant moments that alter the villain’s life trajectory. These could be personal losses, betrayals, or moments of humiliation that push them towards villainy.

  • Relationships: Interactions with family, friends, and mentors can shape a villain’s worldview. A mentor’s betrayal or a family tragedy can be pivotal in their transformation.

Example of a Great Villain Backstory

Look at Syndrome from The Incredibles. His backstory is a great example of how early life events and other pivotal moments can shape a villain.

As a child, Buddy Pine idolized Mr. Incredible and wanted to be his sidekick. But, after being brutally rejected, Buddy’s admiration turned to resentment.

This pivotal event combined with the fact he does not have any special powers, drove him to become Syndrome – a villain who wants to get rid of superheroes and prove his worth through technology rather than powers.

evil villain in an apartment

How to Integrate Your Villain’s Backstory

Here are some tips on how to describe your villain’s backstory without overwhelming the main plot:

Gradual Revelation

Reveal the backstory in small, digestible pieces throughout the story. This can be done through flashbacks, dialogue, or the villain’s internal monologue.

  • Example: In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling reveals Voldemort’s backstory through Dumbledore’s Pensieve. Each memory is a piece of the puzzle that helps us understand how Tom Riddle became the Dark Lord.

Show, Don’t Tell

Use actions and interactions to hint at the backstory. For example, a villain’s reaction to a specific situation can reveal their past trauma.

  • Example: In The Dark Knight, the Joker’s various stories about how he got his scars hint at a traumatic past without telling us the details. His erratic behavior and conflicting accounts only add to the mystery.

Relevant Details

Ensure that the backstory details are relevant to the current plot. Avoid info-dumping by only bringing up backstory elements that directly influence the villain’s present actions.

  • Example: In Black Panther, Erik Killmonger’s backstory is revealed through the discovery of his past in Oakland. His childhood trauma and the death of his father directly impact his actions against T’Challa.

Multiple Perspectives

Use different characters to reveal parts of the backstory. This can add layers to the story and provide a better understanding of the villain.

  • Example: In Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister’s backstory is revealed through multiple perspectives, including his own reflections and other characters’ accounts.

Pro Tip: Just as heroes have their “hero’s journey”, villains have their own arc in a story. This is known as the Villain’s Journey, and it includes stages like the fall from grace, the point of no return, and the ultimate confrontation. For instance, the “Moral Conflict” stage sets the villain on their dark path, while the “Precipice” marks the irreversible step into villainy.

Make Your Villain Relatable

Relatability is key to a villain being believable. When we see ourselves in the villain, we connect on a deeper level and the story becomes more interesting.

A relatable villain is a character with their own problems, wants and fears – not just an obstacle for the hero to overcome.

an evil ruler king

How to Humanize Your Villain

To humanize your villain, consider the following techniques:

  • Show Vulnerability: Allow your villain to have moments of doubt, fear, or sadness. These moments make them more human and relatable. For example, Kylo Ren from Star Wars struggles with his identity and the pull between the dark and light sides of the Force, making him a more complex character.

  • Give Them Redeeming Qualities: Even the most villainous characters can have positive traits. They might show kindness to certain individuals, have a strong sense of loyalty, or possess a code of honor. These qualities can make them more relatable and less one-dimensional. For example, the Yautja in the Predator series are portrayed as having a strict code of conduct and honor , even though they are clearly the bad guys hunting down humans and other creatures.

  • Include Relatable Struggles: Highlight struggles that readers can identify with, such as a desire for acceptance, love, or revenge. These universal themes can make the villain’s actions more understandable. For instance, Magneto from X-Men is driven by his traumatic experiences during the Holocaust, which shape his views on humanity and mutants.

Practical Tips For Humanizing a Villain

Here are some actionable tips to make your favorite villains relatable without losing their menace:

  1. Balance Good and Evil: Ensure your villain has both positive and negative traits.

  2. Show Their Perspective: Occasionally, show the story from the villain’s point of view. This can help readers understand their motivations and see them as more than just the antagonist.

  3. Create Sympathetic Backstories: The villain’s story needs to explain why the villain became who they are.

  4. Highlight Internal Conflicts: Show the villain grappling with their decisions and the consequences of their actions.

Pro Tip: You can make your villain even more sympathetic by giving them moments of kindness or by showing their internal conflicts.

As you’re writing, keep in mind that your villain should always be the hero of their own story. Write them in such a way that the reader connects emotionally with your villain in some way. Giving them a believable, rich backstory and motive for their villainy will help with this!

How to Connect Your Villain to the Hero

The hero/villain relationship is key because it drives the central conflict of your story.

The relationship between the main character and the ‘bad guy’ of the story creates tension, high stakes and emotional depth. The hero and villain often mirror each other, showing off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

a hero fighting a villain

Strategies For Great Villain-Hero Connections

Here are some strategies for creating meaningful connections between the two characters:

Shared Backstory: Develop a backstory that links the hero and villain. This could be a past friendship, family ties, or a significant event that impacted both characters. For example, maybe the villain is a former mentor or friend of the main character.

  • Example: In X-Men: First Class, Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) share a deep, personal history. They start as close friends with a common goal of protecting mutants, but eventually become adversaries due to their differing ideologies. This shared backstory adds emotional weight to their conflict and makes their interactions more poignant.

Opposing Ideologies: Establish clear, opposing ideologies for the hero and villain. This creates a natural conflict and allows for deeper, more philosophical battles. Ensure that these ideologies are integral to the characters’ identities and actions.

  • Example: In The Dark Knight, Batman and the Joker represent opposing ideologies. Batman believes in order and justice, while the Joker thrives on chaos and anarchy. Their ideological clash drives the narrative and adds depth to their confrontations, making each encounter a battle of principles as well as physical prowess.

Mutual Goals: Give the hero and villain a shared goal but different motivations for achieving it. This can create a complex dynamic where they are forced to interact and understand each other, even as they oppose one another.

  • Example: In Avengers: Infinity War, both the Avengers and Thanos seek to use the Infinity Stones, but for vastly different reasons. The Avengers want to protect the universe, while Thanos aims to “balance” it by wiping out half of all life. This shared goal creates a direct conflict and forces both sides to confront their motivations and methods.

Reflective Traits: Make the hero and villain reflections of each other, often with the same characteristics. Highlight their similarities and differences to show how they could have been on the same side under different circumstances. This can create empathy and a deeper connection between the characters.

  • Example: In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader share many traits, including their strong connection to the Force and their internal struggles with good and evil. Their similarities are highlighted in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, where Luke sees what he could become if he succumbs to the dark side. This reflection makes their final confrontation even more impactful than it would have been without their connection.

Avoid Villain Character Mistakes

When writing villains, try not to do these things:

  • Make Them One-Dimensional: A villain who lacks depth can come across as flat and uninteresting. They need to have multiple facets to their personality.

  • Lack of Clear Motivation: Villains who are evil for the sake of being evil are often unconvincing. They need a clear, understandable reason for their actions.

  • Overuse of Clichés: Relying on tired tropes, such as the villain who loves classical music or the one who wants to conquer the world without a nuanced backstory, can make your character feel unoriginal.

  • Inconsistent Behavior: A villain whose actions do not align with their established motivations and personality can confuse readers.

an evil vampire

How to Avoid Clichés

Avoiding clichés and stereotypes is key to writing an antagonistic force. Here are some tips:

  • Find Unique Traits: Instead of giving your villain a love for classical music or chess, choose a hobby or interest that adds a unique twist to their character. For example, Moriarty from Sherlock loves opera and singing.

  • Show, Don’t Tell: Demonstrate the villain’s cruelty through their actions rather than just stating it. Let them hurt important characters or cause significant damage to make their evilness evident. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest exhibits cruelty in subtle ways, from denying patients TV time to psychologically torturing them.

  • Provide Depth: Even if your villain has a common goal, like world domination, ensure they have a detailed backstory and personal reasons for their ambitions. This makes their motivations more believable. A child of extreme privilege, Commodus in Gladiator will do anything to hang onto his status and power – even murder his own father.

Pro Tip: Try writing your villain before you write your hero character! This approach, endorsed by thriller master Dan Brown, makes sure that your villain shapes and defines your hero. It helps you create clear stakes and direct conflict for your two characters.

Checklist: Key Traits of a Good Villain

Creating a great villain requires a blend of traits. Here’s a list of key characteristics that make a worthy opponent to your story’s hero:

  1. They are Complex: The best villains are multi-dimensional, with a rich backstory and nuanced personality. For example, Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs is both a cannibalistic killer and also a cultured, intelligent individual.

  2. They Have Clear Goals: Villains need clear, understandable goals that drive their actions. These goals should be compelling and, ideally, relatable. For instance, Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War has a clear goal of balancing the universe, which, while extreme, is rooted in a twisted sense of logic and altruism.

  3. They are Relatable to Readers: Even the most evil villains should have traits or motivations that readers can understand or empathize with. This relatability makes them more human and less of a caricature. Kylo Ren from Star Wars struggles with his identity and familial expectations, making him a relatable character despite his dark actions.

  4. They are Intelligent: A formidable villain is often highly intelligent, capable of outsmarting the hero and posing a significant threat. This intelligence makes their schemes more believable and their eventual defeat more satisfying. Moriarty from Sherlock is a brilliant strategist, making him a worthy adversary for Sherlock Holmes.

  5. They Have Charisma: Charismatic villains can be both charming and terrifying, drawing people in even as they commit heinous acts. This charisma can make them more memorable and engaging. For example, Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is both charming and mischievous, making him a fan-favorite villain.

  6. They are Morally Ambiguous: Villains with shades of gray or their own moral code are often more interesting than those who are purely evil. This moral ambiguity can create internal conflict and make their actions more unpredictable. For example, Magneto from X-Men believes he is fighting for the survival of mutants.

  7. They are Consistent: A well-written villain acts consistently with their established motivations and personality. This consistency helps maintain believability and keeps readers engaged. For example, Darth Vader’s actions throughout the Star Wars series are driven by his internal conflict and loyalty to the Emperor.

  8. They are a Formidable Presence: A good villain should be a credible threat to the hero, capable of challenging them both physically and mentally. This presence makes the stakes higher and the conflict more intense. The Joker from The Dark Knight is a chaotic force that constantly challenges Batman’s moral code and physical abilities.

Downloadable Villain Workbook

To help you create a great villain for your own story, I’ve created a free downloadable Villain Workbook that you can use in your writing process.

This workbook includes all the key villain characteristics discussed above, along with lots of space for you to jot down notes and ideas specific to the story arc and backstory of your villain.

It’s also a useful exercise to analyze one of your favorite villains from literature or movies to see exactly how the writer created their personality, backstory and motivations. Doing this a few times can help you write a more complex villain with both good qualities and bad ones!

Please do download it, try it out, and let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to add!

Transform Your Story with a Memorable Villain

A great villain is the cornerstone of any unforgettable story.

Think of the chilling presence of Hannibal Lecter or the tragic complexity of Erik Killmonger. These characters stay with us because they are more than just obstacles for the hero—they are fully realized characters with their own fears, desires, and histories.

By applying the techniques discussed in this guide, you can transform your story and create an amazing villain!

how to write a good villain pin

Ready to bring your villain to life? Download my free Villain Workbook and start writing your perfect villain!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *